Course Guide: Belmont Park

Belmont is New York's premier racecourse and home to the first leg of the Triple Crown in 2020. Here, Brooklyn's own Peter Fornatale highlights the track trends for punters to keep an eye on.

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Belmont Park is one of the most elite and storied racing venues in the United States and is home to the Belmont Stakes as well 16 other Grade 1 races. 

In a typical year, the Belmont Stakes is third leg of the USA Triple Crown, a 12-furlong test known as the “Test of the Champion.” In 2020, it will be the first leg of the Upside-Down Triple Crown and contested at nine furlongs.

The track, initially opened on May 4, 1905, is located just outside the New York City limits in Nassau County and is operated by the New York Racing Association, a quasi-governmental non-profit organization that also runs Aqueduct and the legendary Saratoga Race Course. Modern Belmont opened on May 20, 1968.

Some of America’s most famous racehorses have competed at Belmont, including all 13 Triple Crown winners. Its most famous race was likely Secretariat’s 31-length win in the 1973 Belmont. Its biggest crowd for racing came in a year when the Triple Crown was denied, in 2004, when over 120,000 fans witnessed Birdstone’s upset of Smarty Jones.

A bigger crowd still came to the old Belmont Park in 1910 when 150,000 people congregated to watch the conclusion of a Wright Brothers-led aerial tournament.

The Breeders’ Cup has been held at Belmont four times, none more memorable than in 2001. Racing was the first sport to resume in New York after the 9/11 attacks, and just weeks later it was a surreal atmosphere at Belmont for American racing’s biggest day. It was highlighted by Tiznow’s second straight win in the Classic over Sahkee, when Tom Durkin memorably exclaimed just after the wire, “Tiznow wins it for America!”
 

RACING SCHEDULE

In a normal year, Belmont Park opens for its Spring meet from late April through mid-July, and then opens again for its Fall meet from mid-September through late October, known as the Championship meet in the pre-Breeders’ Cup era. This year, Belmont has just reopened – racing is the first professional sport to be conducted in the state since the start of the pandemic – and will continue until mid-July when the horses and horsemen will make their way up north to Saratoga.
 

THE COURSES

Belmont’s main track is the largest in the USA, a 12-furlong oval known as “Big Sandy” for both its size and the composition of its soil. At Belmont, 10 furlongs are run around one-and-a-half turns and dirt races up to nine furlongs – like this year’s Belmont Stakes – are around one turn.

Belmont has two turf courses, the Outer Turf, or Widener Turf, spans 1 5⁄16 miles (2.1 km) plus 27 feet (8.2 m). There’s also an Inner Turf Course, with a circumference of 1 3⁄16 miles (1.9 km) plus 103 feet (31 m). The main purpose of the dual courses is to allow more turf racing in general over a long meet and there are horses that will prefer one to the other, mainly based on how much they enjoy running around turns. It’s a subtle factor but one worth your attention and this we will break them out as separate courses below.
 

TOP JOCKEYS, TRAINERS & SIRES

Except where noted, the stats in this piece were compiled with the help of self-professed “numbers geek,” and regular contributor to inthemoneypodcast.com, John Camardo. The sample started at the beginning of 2016 and carried through the start of the new meet in June 2020. The charts have been edited for clarity (retired/suspended jocks removed etc.

Where possible, two stats we like to track are ROI (return on investment, looking at what happen if you wagered a dollar via the tote on every mount), and IV (Impact Value, how often connections win compared to have often they “should” win, as implied by the odds. When evaluating ROI, keep in mind that any number over $0.85 should be considered a positive result, in the sense that $0.15 is taken out of every wagering dollar via the tote pools. If you’re “beating the takeout,” you are doing very well. With Impact Values, a number of 1.0 means something happens exactly as much as it should, with negative numbers indicating they don’t happen as often as they should and positive values indicating just the opposite.

 
JOCKEYS IN DIRT SPRINTS

Looking at our table, Paco Lopez comes out very impressive in a small sample: 22%/1.65 IV/$1.57 ROI. That’s strong enough that I’m willing to give his mounts extra consideration, especially because he possesses a quality – unabashed aggression – that a lot of the local riders aren’t exactly known for.

Joe Bravo is another part timer who comes out looking well in our Dirt Sprint numbers.

Speaking of aggressive riders, Luis Saez also rides dirt sprints at Belmont notably well: 18%, 1.1 IV, takeout-beating $0.91 ROI.

Of the other regulars, Joel Rosario crushes it – over 20 percent winners/1.07 IV/$1.09 ROI.

In the battle of the brothers in Dirt Sprints, Jose Ortiz gets the nod with his 20%/0.95 IV/$0.84 as opposed to Irad Ortiz’s 19 percent/0.89 IV/$0.76 ROI.

Here are our dirt sprint jocks with 15%/1.0 IV/$0.84: Paco Lopez, Ricardo Santana, Junior Alvarado, Joel Rosario, Joe Bravo, Cornelio Velasquez, Luis Saez, Kendrick Carmouche, Manny Franco.

When Manny Franco is aboard the best speed horse, you’ll want to pay attention: 27 percent winners and a positive ROI.
 

 
JOCKEYS IN DIRT ROUTES (RACES OVER 1M+)

It’s a pretty level playing field with names like Manny Franco and Junior Alvarado once again making the case that they may be a little underrated in the eyes of the crowd.

Once again, Jose Ortiz holds a small edge over Irad Ortiz in dirt routes.

In a tiny sample, David Cohen excels. 
 

 
JOCKEYS IN INNER TURF SPRINTS

Joel Rosario overperforms significantly: 21%/1.25 IV/$1.85 ROI.

Jose Ortiz once again gets the better of his brother.

Javier Castellano, who gets overbet on dirt, does a lot better in this sample: 22%/1.1 IV/$0.84 ROI.
 

 
JOCKEYS IN INNER TURF ROUTES

Junior Alvarado looks great on the advanced metrics here: 20%/1.54 IV/$1.07 ROI.

Javier Castellano again comes out well, as does John Velazquez.

Both Ortiz brothers have solid numbers with Irad Ortiz coming out marginally better in this category with a better win percentage and IV despite a $0.08 lower ROI.

Inner turf route riding definitely seems one of the trickier propositions at Belmont and it’s interesting to see Velazquez and Castellano, justify the price (in ROI terms) their famous names attach to their horses in this category.
 

    

JOCKEYS IN OUTER TURF SPRINTS

It’s interesting to see how similar the Ortiz brothers’ numbers are here, with the exception of the ROI column, where Irad Ortiz is worse off than his brother Jose Ortiz by a significant margin – I suppose Irad’s mounts just get more overbet? But the brothers are very good in turf sprints on the outer.

Joel Rosario once again looks like he’s worth something on the bare form when he takes the mount: 18%/1.01 IV/$0.80 ROI.

Interesting that Junior Alvarado, who does so well in so many of these samples, struggles in turf sprint categories: perhaps his clients just don’t have the right horses for turf sprints?
 

 
JOCKEYS IN OUTER TURF ROUTES (RACES OVER 1M+)

Junior Alvarado is back to shining here: 16 percent/1.47 IV/1.31 ROI.

Three riders have very similar numbers, an OK win percentage backed up by a plus IV and a strong ROI in the $0.90s: Manny Franco, Luis Saez, Jose Lezcano.

Javier Castellano’s numbers are also notably strong: 22%/1.11 IV/$0.85.

Here, Irad Ortiz wins the battle of the bros, though Jose’s IV still comes out better.

There are a lot of riders at BEL who ride Outer Turf Routes well.
 

 
TRAINERS ON DIRT

In terms of number of wins, Rudy Rodriguez comes out on top in our sample, but he ends up below 1.0 in IV and under the takeout in ROI, suggesting the market fully understand him. His charges can certainly be used but he’s overbet.

One name that stand out is a trainer I’ve admired for a long time: Gary Gullo. His strike rate is over 20%, his IV is a strong 1.24 and his ROI is $1.26. He is an elite trainer whose horses you can still get value on – he tends not to have the best stock, which is why he continues to fly under the radar.

Charlie Baker has been no secret in New York for some time – initially with his Finger Lakes shippers heading east to Saratoga in summer and these days on a year-round basis. His 21% strike rate, 1.18 IV and $1.37 ROI stamp him as a force to be reckoned with.

Robertino Diodoro deserves a shoutout with 27% winners, a 1.32 IV and a table-best $1.49 ROI.

Linda Rice is a prolific winner with 73 wins (23%), a 1.02 IV and a ROI of $0.89 that beats the takeout. 

Interestingly, as much of a force as Chad Brown is, he doesn’t come out great when looking at our advanced metrics: the 27% win rate is stronger than all but Diodoro but the IV is just below 1.0 and the ROI is $0.73. He’s fantastic on dirt but the crowd prices his runners accordingly.

Todd Pletcher is in a similar boat with 21% winners, an IV of .88 and a grim ROI of $0.68. I’m not going to be in a hurry to downgrade Brown or Pletcher runners but I’m really going to have to like them best to commit to them knowing the crowd prices in their brilliance – and then some.

Here’s the complete list of trainers with at least 18% winners, an IV of 1.0 or higher and a plus ROI on dirt: Robertino Diodoro, Gary Gullo, Jeremiah Englehart, George Weaver, Charlie Baker, and Shug McGaughey.
 

 
TRAINERS ON INNER TURF

You probably won’t be surprised to learn what a force Chad Brown is on turf but it is interesting to know that there is a bit of a difference from his performance on the outer, where he’s an unreal 29% winners/1.15 IV/ $1.05 ROI and the inner, where he’s 24% winners/ 1.01 IV/ $0.85 ROI. Is there something to this? Perhaps. On the inner, where conventional wisdom says speed is more deadly, perhaps his runners, who generally sit and finish, are at a comparative disadvantage. And how crazy is it that during our sample you could have made a significant flat bet profit doing nothing more clever than betting every Chad Brown runner on the Outer Turf?

Looking more at the inner, Jeremiah Englehart has wildly good numbers: 23 percent/1.67 IV and a $1.69 ROI. His horses deserve extra consideration.

Graham Motion also shines with a 14% win rate, a 1.18 IV and a $1.46 ROI.

On the flip side of the coin, it might be that Linda Rice runners are best avoided on the Inner: 13% winners, 0.73 IV and a $0.62 ROI.

Here’s our complete list of trainers on the Inner Turf with at least 17%/1.0/plus ROI: Mark Hennig, Jeremiah Englehart, Brian Lynch, David Cannizzo, Mike Maker, Jimmy Toner (technically misses by $0.01), Graham Motion. Honorable mention also to a longtime favorite of mine, Christophe Clement, who misses by $0.06.
 

  
TRAINERS ON OUTER TURF

We already spoke of Brown’s dominance in the previous section. His former assistant, Jorge Abreu, also thrives on the Outer albeit with a much lower strike rate. We’re looking at 16%/1.35 IV and a $1.11 ROI.

Another name that impresses is Brad Cox, with 28% wins, 1.4 IV and a $1.27 ROI.

Tom Bush’s numbers on the Outer are unusual. A high IV (1.29) but a low ROI ($0.67) suggesting that he wins only when he’s really supposed to.

Wesley Ward is another with a good strike rate and a normal IV but whose ROI suggest the crowd just routinely overbets his runners.

Here’s a strange one: Graham Motion so good on the inner, is just 12%/0.77 IV/$0.42 ROI. He’s so good in general that these numbers are hard to believe but it’s something I’m going to pay attention to this meet.

Here’s the list of trainers on the Outer with at least 17%/1.0/$0.95 ROI: Brad Cox, Danny Gargan, Chad Brown (Christophe Clement misses by $0.06).
 

 
SIRES ON THE DIRT

It’s not worth diving too deep into these because as you’d expect, the top dirt sires in America are largely the top sires at Belmont, and the sample size isn’t large enough to draw too many conclusions.
 

SIRES ON TURF
A couple of observations here: the American Pharoahs are indeed excelling on the green.

Some of the most interesting stuff doesn’t appear in the chart. The sample isn’t big enough to make this actionable but it’s notable that the Curlins have underachieved (1 for 21), the Pioneerof the Niles as well (1 for 22) and Orb is off to a shaky start (0 for 16).
 

SPEED FIGURE PARS

The Beyer Speed Figures are the gold standard in speed figures. They are available from Daily Racing Form. The numbers presented below were arrived at with the help of professional horseplayer Sean Boarman, who has been making his own Beyer-style figures for 15 years.

For three-year-old males and up at Belmont, the average winning figure of a maiden special weight is 87. Bottom-level maiden claimers for the same runners typically go in a 66. Bottom-level open claiming winners also typically run a 75. First-level allowance winners typically run an 80. High level allowance horses run around 92. Listed stakes caliber types are more likely to run around a 99. On average, Grade 3 stakes go in 105, G2 in 107 and G1 in 110.

As a general rule, you can adjust your pars down for fillies and mares (8 pts), statebreds (10 pts), and on a sliding scale for younger three-year-olds and two-year-olds (the younger the runners, the slower the figures). 

 
OTHER SPECIFIC ANGLES

Stats in this section come from our friends at STATS Race Lens and were filtered by STATS power user Matt Vagvolgyi.
 

POST POSITIONS

There are a few interesting angles involving post positions and the first two I found a little surprising: the outside posts in turf sprints, from the 10 gate out, are disadvantageous with a strike rate of just 7% and a $0.29 loss on the dollar.

More odd, the rail in turf routes does not appear the place to be, perhaps because of the unusual starting configurations on turf. Overall the rail wins 13% with a $0.27 ROI and in the last year it’s just 8% with a $0.70 loss.

It’s logical but still notable that the inside posts in dirt sprints are beneficial. Over the last year, the 1-3 posts produce 19% winners and a $0.01 return on investment – much better than the takeout.

And the horses drawn outside in dirt routes underperform in a relatively small sample of 30 starts over the last two years: 13 percent winners with a loss of $0.56 on the dollar.
 

RUNNING STYLES

If you can find the best speed in a turf route, you’re on to something as the horses’ projected to have the best speed who make the lead win 27% of the time with a 40% ROI. 

And if the horse who projects to make the lead also has the best closing sectionals in a turf route, in our sample they won 48% of time with a positive ROI (just a 23-start sample but still).

On the other hand, the horses with the best late pace as judged by closing sectionals in turf routes underperform, losing $0.36 on the dollar with 16% winners. This is likely a case of the crowd overrating them and underestimating speed on turf at Belmont.

Speed is also critical in dirt routes over the past year, with projected leaders winning 16% of the time with a positive ROI. And if the horse with the best projected early sectionals is drawn low (posts 1-5), those numbers improve to 31% winners and the ROI goes to $1.14.

 
TRAINER ANGLES

In a small sample, under-the-radar trainer Steve Klesaris excels in turf routes. In the past five years, his runners have won 22% of the time and produced a $2.00 ROI (43 starters).

Jeremiah Englehart was the talk of Saratoga last year with his first-time starters’ performances, but it’s a skill he’s showed downstate as well. Over the past five years with firsters sprinting on dirt he’s won 21 percent of the time and his ROI is $1.11.

Course Guide: Belmont Park
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